Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Artist Michel Tuffery opts for Waiheke over Washington

Michel Tuffery has drawn on his love of history for his latest exhibition, Reading Middens, Tracing Lines, which follows a residency of Waiheke Island.
Michel Tuffery has drawn on his love of history for his latest exhibition, Reading Middens, Tracing Lines, which follows a residency of Waiheke Island.

A residency at the Smithsonian in Washington DC or one on Waiheke at the island's community art gallery?

When it came to deciding where he wanted to work next, there was no contest for Michel Tuffery. The artist, born, raised and based in Wellington, opted for Waiheke, saying that after years travelling to work around the world, he wanted to spend some time reconnecting with his roots and have a "mental health" break.

Not that the father-of-three has taken much of a break. In a barn-like studio, a short drive from the Waiheke Community Art Gallery, Tuffery has created work for an exhibition that includes more than 40 pieces inspired by the island, its past and its residents.

Tuffery spent a total of 12 weeks on Waiheke and has used many of the same methods developed during his 30-year career. A printmaker, sculptor, performance artist, painter and animator, his work is inspired by his Samoan, Rarotongan and Tahitian heritage, the links between Pacific peoples and their relationships to the environment.

"My kaupapa is to go to a place knowing nothing and head straight to the local museums, talk to the locals - get the gossip - and find out what is significant for them then I start reading and, from there, creating the work," Tuffery says.

Traditional motifs and materials, combined with contemporary references, thread throughout his art; the Waiheke creations are no exception. A month out from the exhibition opening, he already had acrylic on tapa paintings, woodblock prints, models for soaring manu aute (God kites) and carved shells.

"It is a visual response to the stories I have heard from this island and the relationship it has with Rarotonga and French Polynesia," he says. "There's an Oneroa here and a Little Oneroa in Rarotonga and waka were moving all over the Pacific - I think our descendants were a lot more mobile than we realise."

Inspired by the island's location as a transit point for migration - particularly from the eastern Pacific and his ancestral homeland in Raiatea, Tahiti (via Rarotonga) - Tuffery's work on Waiheke started with the shells, found in middens on the island's many pa sites.

As archaeologists - amateur or professional - know, middens provide valuable clues to the past: what people ate, where their food might have come from, how they were cooking it and how much was being consumed.

From local archaeologist Tim Moon and keen island historians such as Jeanine Clarkin and Paul and Peter Monin, Tuffery discovered the diverse history of Waiheke including of the massacre, around 1820-21, at Onetangi Beach (the name means weeping sands).

The shells became his "storyboards"; drawn or carved on to plan out larger scale works on paper. He has combined representations of the flora and fauna with stories from the history of Waiheke and the Pacific.

Appointed in 2008 a Member of the NZ Order of Merit for services to art, Tuffery returns to the themes of history, cultural exchange and global networks. His 2007 work First Contact explored early encounters between European and Pacific peoples. It was reworked and shown in Sydney and at the 2012 New Zealand International Arts Festival, when giant multi-media images were projected on to the walls of Te Papa.

Captain James Cook's relationship with the indigenous people he met and Tupaia, the Tahitian navigator and translator who travelled with Cook, feature prominently in Tuffery's art. He traces his Tahitian roots to Raiatea, the island Tupaia came from. Credited as being the first Polynesian to use Western art methods, Tupaia travelled with roles of tapa cloth on which he drew and painted images of the scenes he witnessed, along with maps and charts.

"It's like a metaphor for cultural exchange," says Tuffery, "so I like the idea of using tapa cloth in my own work."

But he is perhaps best known for his mechanical sculpture Pisupo Lua Afe made from the flattened strips of corned beef tins reassembled and riveted into a life-sized metal bull. It was first crafted in 1994; three years later, Tuffery presented a performance in which two povi (corned beef bull sculptures) paraded down Wellington city streets and took part in a mock bullfight.

It was apt training for one of his more recent international commissions. In 2014, he travelled with wife Jayne and youngest daughter, Coco, to Airds, near Campbelltown in southwest Sydney for a community art project with Australia's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). Airds, with the largest percentage of single parent households in Australia,faced a serious environmental issue: masses of cars were being dumped along and in the Upper Georges River.

"I'd never seen anything like it," said Tuffery after he had walked the banks. "I couldn't believe how dumb human beings could be."

So he organised the retrieval of the cars and constructed from them a giant metal kangaroo, Buru Transforma Kangaroo, in the carpark of one of the shopping malls. He also ran youth workshops and public programmes.

"The first week was tough," Tuffery recalls. "People were swearing at us and telling us to f*** off out of the carpark and I said, 'well, I asked what you wanted and you told me you wanted the cars out of the river, so I've done that.' They thought I was mad, but, after a week, the community started to back us up as the project began to evolve."

The 4.5m sculpture includes barbecues and has become a focal point for the town.

The Waiheke residency was done in two parts to allow Tuffery to continue a commitment to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Rarotonga, where he worked alongside master carver Mike Tavioni, local schools and communities on an exhibition (World War I Sound Shells for the Kuki Airani Soldiers) to highlight contributions 500 Cook Island soldiers made during that war.

He explored old graveyards, looking for clues as to what happened to these men when they returned home. He led workshops with secondary school students to create art about the soldiers.

Once again, there was a cultural connection with the other side of the world. While on a residency in Rouen, France, he heard stories about the World War I tunnels of Arras and the Lord's Prayer written in Tahitian. He went down to see what he could find. "I was texting from the tunnels - texting my uncle, Isaac Solomon and Mike - telling them what I had found, asking for translations. I was just so excited."

He will return to Rarotonga this year to carve a memorial stone and gateway for the Cook Islands RSA cemetery with Mike Tavioni. But for now, Tuffery hopes Reading Middens, Tracing Lines will encourage visitors to reconsider Waiheke Island's history. Next year, he'll take up that residency in Washington at the Smithsonian Institution.

Works by students at Waiheke High School produced in workshops with Michel Tuffery will be installed in the Annex Gallery while, in the Small Gallery, Pacific Light features contemporary glass by glass artists whose works make indigenous, cultural and environmental links to the Pacific. These artists include Stephen Bradbourne, Claudia Borella, Peter Viesnik, Jo Pervan, Katie Brown and Darryl Fagence.

What: Michel Tuffery: Artist in Residence Exhibition - Reading Middens, Tracing Lines
Where and when: Waiheke Community Art Gallery, September 16 - October 17

- NZ Herald

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